FringeReview UK 2019
Directed by Paula Garfield, the designer – of set, costumes and video – is Paul Burgess. Lit by Joe Hornsby the composer and sound designer is Chris Bartholomew, movement by Ann Akin, translation consultant Daryl Jackson and voice coach Kit Lessner. Till November 6th.
Three days before she killed herself, Sarah Kane posted a script without directions or even characters. The longest suicide note in literature, it will be played all over the world as long as drama lasts. Four years before, critics screamed abuse at her debut Blasted. A year after her death people held each other and wept silently or burst into laughter as 4.48 Psychosis premiered at the Royal Court Upstairs, back where Kane had begun.
Deafinitely Theatre returns from last year’s sell-out performances with a week at The New Diorama. And they’ve adjusted the performers and dynamics. Previously an all-male study in toxic masculinity, this time there’s two deaf male actors William Grint (who made such an impression in the Globe’s 2016 Imogen) and Jamie Rae; and Erin Siobhan Hutching and Esther McAuley primarily in medics’ roles.
By placing hearing women in patriarchal roles such gender-reversal from the original (implied: Kane was a patient in a patriarchal system) makes subtle points. The doctors aren’t the problem; it’s the systemic roles they operate through. And the hearing/deaf interface provides another dynamic of exclusivity.
Directed by Paula Garfield, the designer – of set, costumes and video – is Paul Burgess. We’re confronted by a glass Perspex box frontage, where behind the box set’s painted in its lower half in sage green, upper half in white with apple green doors stage right and left: an anti-septic hospital analogue punctuated by a plastic chair. Words are projected white in a dazzling array of fade-ins and often duplicated left and right on the backstage wall. Quite often they’re obscured by actors: many craned to see what the words conveyed – not otherwise articulated verbally.
Lit by Joe Hornsby, crucially dimmed when writing’s projected, that steady medical beat’s sustained. As composer and sound designer Chris Bartholomew provides evocative effects though his music, a bit Max Richter in its comfy lento progression, is at odds with the subject matter. Movement’s by Ann Akin, the translation consultant Daryl Jackson and voice coach Kit Lessner work to project clarity through a trifurcated language: voice, text and sign-language.
4.48am was the time Kane awoke each morning to absolute clarity and ability to write. It lasted for just 72 minutes till 6: ‘after that I’m gone’. Waiting to die, terrified of doing so and visited with urges to live, she wrote this work in a glimmering sequence of such spaces. ‘And my mind is the bewildered subject of these fragments.’ With no stage directions characters or setting, and only spaces showing the work’s in 24 sections, we might think so too.
Kane’s a dramatist though: and almost certain this work would be performed posthumously. With characteristic fluidity those she addresses seem sometimes doctors, sometimes a fled or absent lover, or one not yet born. And the ‘I’. Kane’s not ultimately saying look at me, but look at you. There’s nothing like this in literature. Nor will there be.
Productions of 4.48 recently have moved away from a straight rendition, exploring the biblical reach of the poetry, its almost operatic dimensions. And bifurcating the expressive range. There’s Philip Venables’ miraculous 2016 opera revived again at the Lyric Hammersmith in 2018. And just as that score quotes Bach’s St Matthew Passion and Berg’s Violin Concerto at crucial moments enunciating ‘it is finished’ this production too divides spoken and expressive arias in Grint’s and Rae’s astonishingly physical performances, full of rage pain and mimicked self-harm.
Even now 4.48’s unflinching deadpan unseats the settled complicity of being hailed a masterpiece. Even being on every drama syllabus hasn’t dimmed its way of looking at us. ‘Fuck you God, for making me love a person who doesn’t exist.’ But then the ideal lover the protagonist, or fragment of one invoked, also doesn’t exist.
And yet the impossible lover, the desire to be loved is shot through the whole of this biblically-inflected script, often litanic poetry. That’s one supreme advantage of the way this production works. We’re reading a stunning text by lightning while listening to voices and the expressive brilliance of Grint and Rea. If Kane invokes a raw cry, there’s a cackle to counter it too. Detailing a future suicide to his doctor (Grint’s ‘Kane’ here) with pills, slit wrists and hanging, the protagonist adds mordantly: ‘It couldn’t possibly be misconstrued as a cry for help.’ Uneasy laughter echoes back.
If there are shriller moments when God’s invoked: ‘… fuck you for rejecting me… fuck my father for fucking up my life’, it’s still Kane’s use of the psychiatrist as whipping-person which brooks intimacy. There’s a fantastically unstable dialogue, and sometimes it is actually spoken by Hutching and McAuley as it’s also projected, or almost sung by Rea and Grint. That’s when affection warily expressed by each towards the other culminates, undercut by a chance remark or overreach. A metaphor, or a simile, Rea and Grint correct Hutching and McAuley, is real.
There’s a fine ballet too as the latter actors enunciate benefits and side-effects of each drug including loss of sex-drive and vomiting or inability to have an orgasm (Kane’s original depositions replicated in 4.48 are unflinchingly deadpan); Rea and Grint squirm at each iteration.
There’s a symphonic movement too in the adagio lead-in, the scherzo ballet of countdown and frantic disassembly, the andante of being walked-through therapy (with emotional disappointment in the therapist), the explosion of drug therapy and enforced usage; finally the long drawn out epilogue with the reassurances you’ll be fine. Hutching and McAuley enunciate all this with expressionless robotic voices, whilst their analogues – Rae here – convulse in a chair for ECT treatment. The calm’s really how post-treatment stuns you like an animal with short-term memory loss.
‘It is myself I have never met, whose face is pasted on the underside of my mind.’ This can be a shattering experience. Grint and Rae are almost beyond praise in their expressive power, their delicacy and occasional humour. Grint radiates a dark fragile intensity, whilst Rae projects a stunned hapless despair. Hutching’s clinical delivery ghosts smiles and McAuley’s frowns concern. They act like their male counterparts mostly in unison.
Despite this, and the way this production searches like other recent ones for a vocal passion play, there are notes it doesn’t quite strike. Kane’s humour is fitfully present, and the current production’s re-jigging of systemic failure is bold and innovative. It can’t quite overcome its own alienated remove though. It conveys that hallucinated distance admirably.: and is the 4.48 production of recent years, enlarging the confines of Kane’s prison with new bars, new terrors, even a new tenderness We just need a bit more ghost in the machine. But do see this bold, beautiful attempt on Kane’s masterpiece.